The hero’s journey plot outline (or “Joseph Campbell monomyth”) can be split into ordinary world (the hero’s normal world, steps 1-5 and 14-17) and extraordinary world (a relatively alien place the hero must travel in, steps 6-13). It can also be split into three acts: (1) separation, (2) initiation, and (3) return. In act one, the hero is driven to tackle the challenges posed by the extraordinary world. In act two, his or her personal journey leads to spiritual growth as he overcomes obstacles and overcomes a moment of despair. In act three, the newly-aware hero returns to the ordinary world and triumphs.

It can also be split into seventeen (!) separate stages. Amazingly, most myths and epic tales can be wrangled to fit this outline.

  1. Ordinary world. At the story’s beginning, the hero exists here.
  2. Call to adventure. Some event starts the hero on the journey.
  3. Meeting the mentor. Some archetypal sage character provides guidance to the hero.
  4. Refusal of the call. The hero initially refuses the quest.
  5. Cross first threshold. The quest begins and the hero is thrown into a world beyond what he or she has known before. There is no turning back, now.
  6. Belly of the whale. This represents the first obstacle, fight, or manifestation that the hero is beyond their depth.
  7. Road of trials. The fun: various adventures that the hero overcomes.
  8. Meeting with the goddess. Generalize that last word. This is code for something positive to enter the hero’s life. An ally. A love interest. A revelation of a secret or new power.
  9. Temptation. One of the toughest obstacles is internal. The hero could abandon the quest, here. Many stories have the hero actually succumb to temptation at this point.
  10. Dark night of the soul. The hero loses everything. Hope is lost. Despair sets in. Cue the sad violins.
  11. Atonement. The hero accesses or appeals to a mystical power or wisdom. The hero rejects the temptation fully, and realizes that there is a glimmer of hope left.
  12. Apotheosis / self actualization. The hero achieves internal bliss. Maybe not a lot happens in the plot at this moment, but this is the stage when the hero has set his or her self to follow the right path. In making the hard decision, the hero has achieved actual hero status.
  13. Magic flight. An escape. A chase. A whirlwind of action to attempt to return to the ordinary world.
  14. Rescue from without. The hero cannot do it alone! So some ally must help the hero return to the ordinary world.
  15. Cross the final threshold. The final “boss fight” or sacrifice. The climax of the story. The hero employs what he learned in the extraordinary realm and is victorious.
  16. Master of two worlds. Due to what he or she learned in the extraordinary realm, the hero now has the power to restore balance in the ordinary world.
  17. Freedom to live. In the final pages, balance is restored. All the loose ends are tied up.

Hero’s Journey using Star Wars as an example.

  1. Ordinary world. Luke Skywalker is bored with the life of a farmer on Tatooine while an interstellar rebellion happens somewhere out there.
  2. Call to adventure. That new droid played a video of a princess in distress.
  3. Meeting the mentor. The droid must belong to crazy old Ben Kenobi.
  4. Refusal of the call. Luke refuses to go with Ben to Alderaan.
  5. Cross first threshold. Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, and he goes with Ben.
  6. Belly of the whale. Luke boards a hunk-of-junk smuggler’s freighter.
  7. Road of trials. Escape Tatooine, learn to use a light saber, survive aboard Death Star.
  8. Meeting with the goddess. Not hard to peg that one: Princess Leia.
  9. Temptation. Not too overt in this movie, but Luke does try to blast Darth Vader to vapor, which is kind of dark-sidey.
  10. Dark night of the soul. Luke takes the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi hard.
  11. Atonement. Luke dedicates himself to learning the force.
  12. Apotheosis / self actualization. Luke turns the “targeting computer” off and uses the force.
  13. Magic flight. Flying an X-wing to attack the Death Star.
  14. Rescue from without. Han Solo clears the path for Luke.
  15. Cross the final threshold. Luke blows up a moon-sized space station with a single shot.
  16. Master of two worlds. Luke may be a Jedi, now, but he’s still got friends.
  17. Freedom to live. Happy throne room scene with medals and celebration.

Now, onto my title, which has a “versus” in it. I apologize for that. That’s clickbait and a cheap (though often seen) rhetorical trick called a “false dichotomy,” or a “black and white fallacy.” Literary agents and traditional publishers as a group are not antithetical to the hero’s journey outline.

However, one piece of advice that literary fiction agents often give is that “page one” needs to present the hero with a problem. This is necessary, they persuasively argue, to incline readers to flip over to page two. In today’s hypercompetitive market, that advice has been demonstrated to sell books. Selling books, let us not forget, is the goal of publishing. Agents feed books to editors who feed them to their publishers, and all links in the chain are doing it for profit. Books with page one “hooks” sell better than books without that gimmick. I state all this in order to contrast motivations. A “page one hook” is motivated by dollars, while the hero’s journey is motivated by human satisfaction.

In contrast to presenting a problem right away, the purpose of step one of the hero’s journey is to establish the “ordinary world.” That is, it’s some scene setting. In Star Wars, the big picture of an Empire and a rebellion is illustrated before we ever meet Luke. The Hobbit starts with a lengthy description of a hobbit hole. The opening of Watership Down describes life in a rabbit warren. In the hero’s journey outline, the problem won’t arise until step two, “call to adventure.” Luke sees an image of a princess asking for help. Dwarves arrive and invite Bilbo on a journey. Fiver has a vision of the destruction of their peaceful home.

Will an agent ever pick up a story that follows a hero’s journey outline?

But worry not. The answer is yes, as long as the author feeds the agent what the agent has come to expect. Firstly, the hero’s journey is infinitely malleable. It doesn’t have to happen in strict numerical order. The parts don’t have to be of equal length. You can whiz through the first five steps of the outline in a paragraph, if need be. Secondly, nobody said that the “page one problem” had to be equated to the “call to action.” In fact, “Luke is bored” could be the page one problem. “Who is she?” (the call to action) could be on page thirteen. Thirdly, what the agents are really saying is that page one needs to be intriguing. It must be inviting to the reader so that the reader will turn to page two. Likewise, page two needs to sustain that forward momentum. Page three should add interest. And so on. That ideal continuing and building sense of storytelling does not have to rest upon the plot alone. Character development can shoulder some of that burden, too.

The real bottom line is that the agent’s advice (a page one problem is a must) is a shortcut phrase for what the agent really wants. The agent wants addictive fiction. The agent wants a story that sucks the reader in from page one. Shortly, the reader will fall in love with the characters/plot/theme/setting and can’t put the book down and will read it after bedtime and then recommend it to friends. Agent, author, and publisher are happy. The hero’s journey outline is a codified distillation of a bunch of stories that people love and have loved throughout history. If your particular story follows the HJ outline, then there is at least an iota of evidence that the story will satisfy a reader. It needs 99 other things, too, of course, if it wishes to ascend to the level of un-put-downable. But at least you’ve solved number 100.

2 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey versus Agents’ Advice

  1. I think it’s telling that you state most stories “can be wrangled into” fitting the Hero’s Journey. I’m not sure why there’s such devotion to this form that we can’t accept other kinds of stories.

    For instance, I have a hard time imagining a short story writer being able to cram in the 17 stages. There are also many cultural kinds of storytelling where nothing like the Hero’s Journey is followed.

    Seeking commonality across world literature is great. I do have trouble with the idea that no other forms are equally valid.


    1. Hi, Deby!
      Yes, for sure the “heros’ journey outline” is for epics, not short stories. I think all those short, moral-to-the-story tales like Aesop’s Fables and the Anansi stories are in a different category. One-act plays versus three-act plays, for lack of a better analogy.

      There are other troubles with the outline, too. It’s “backward-looking” for one thing. It’s a distillation of historical examples that (in its original form) bakes in some things we modern folk are often trying to fight against. E.g., religion/active divine influence. E.g., patriarchy/sexism. So I am definitely-definitely serious about the “wrangling” aspect.

      I hope I didn’t come off as “preachy” either. There’s no mandate at all for folks to use this outline. There’s a Harlequin Romance outline that people love. There’s the usual three-act outline. Lester Dent had a “5000 word pulp fiction outline” that you can Google. There’s probably a zillion more that I don’t know. And surely the “best” outline hasn’t been invented yet.

      Liked by 1 person

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